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Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

Getting Things (Re-)Started: Dealing with Mental Blocks

    In any significantly big project, there are bound to be times when you lose the track of what you’re doing, when for whatever reason you stop moving forward and, what’s worse, can’t seem to find the motivation to get going again. When we “fall off the wagon” like that, a kind of psychological wall starts building up, making getting back in the swing of things seem more and more daunting. An ugly cycle develops: as the wall gets higher, we get more anxious about climbing it, which makes the wall higher still.

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    The only real solution is to do something, anything, but that’s small consolation when a project is taunting you with its unfinishedness. So here are a few little tricks to help you take a running start at that wall – you may not clear it in a single bound, but if you can just sink your toes into its cracks you might well find that climbing it wasn’t quite the chore you thought it was. And when you discover that, the wall itself often comes crumbling down before you.

    1. Take it on the road.

    A powerful approach to getting re-started is to switch up the scenery by tackling your project in a new place. If you’re sitting in your cubicle at work staring at the foam-and-fuzz walls, try taking a work-from-home day. If the butt-print in your chair has this project’s name on it, try going to a coffee shop or co-working space or even a park bench.

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    The point is, change your scenery. The mind builds powerful associations between places and certain activities – and unfortunately, being frustrated and unproductive is just as much an “activity” to the mind as being happily productive. The longer you stew in frustration at the same place, the more likely your mind is to fall into an unproductive state just by entering that space. Moving to a new site gives you a clean slate to work with, a place with no associations, and is often enough to break whatever mental block your mind is throwing in your way.

    2. Do 20 minutes.

    This is my favorite procrastination-killer: set a timer for 20 minutes and promise yourself to work until the dinger goes “ding”. This is useful for projects that aren’t beyond you creatively or conceptually but are simply too dull to look forward too, like data entry. (Or, I confess, grading exams…) But no matter how hateful the task, just about anyone can manage 20 minutes of it. And the beauty of this is, once the timer goes off, you often find that you’ve got some momentum and really just want to get the job done – which may well be far more preferable than going back to dreading and putting off the work yet again.

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    3. Limit yourself.

    This is the opposite of #2 – instead of forcing yourself to do at least a set amount of time, limit yourself to doing no more than 30 minutes, or an hour, or 4 hours, or whatever is reasonable. Set a timer and try to work, but when the timer goes off, stop. Even if you haven’t made a lick of progress. Oh, you’ll be stressed. You’ll want to sit there and stew for 30 more minutes. You’ll metaphorically rend your garments and gnash your teeth. But DO NOT DO ANY MORE WORK on that project. Force yourself to wait until tomorrow (or whenever you can schedule another block of time).

    The mind thrives on limits, though it might take some training. If you know you only have x amount of time to work on something, and if the alternative is even more frustration, the mind will adapt. By depriving yourself of time to work on your project, you’re turning it from a chore that you have to spend so much time on to something you only get to spend so much time on – you turn a punishment into a reward.

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    4. Skip the hard stuff.

    A lot of projects stop dead when we hit a point where we don’t know how to move forward. One way to get past that is to just set that sticky bit aside and proceed as if you’d figured it out. For instance, while writing a business plan, you may get hung up on income projections, with no idea how to figure that part out. Leave that bit, for now, and continue with the next part. If you need figures to work with, make them up* – you’ll replace them with more accurate figures later. I do this all the time when writing academic papers where I don’t have a reference on hand to flesh out some part; I just skip it, and if I need to refer to that part later in the paper, I put in nonsense and highlight it with the word processor’s “highlight” function so I remember where I need to make changes later. Often, the hard stuff is easier once you’ve finished the easier bits – you develop the expertise to handle parts that earlier were beyond your abilities.

    * You’d be surprised how many financial projections in business plans were made up anyway…

    5. Tend to your knitting.

    Or fly a kite. Or build a birdhouse. Draw caricatures of minor celebrities. Just drop whatever you’re working on and do something totally random, totally different, and totally non-stressful. The brain is a funny thing – it often freezes up under pressure and then, when you’re least expecting it, starts churning out solutions to whatever thorny problems are holding things up. Ironically, letting go of the problem is sometimes the only way to solve it.

    Do you have any tips for getting back into the flow of things? Let us know about them in the comments.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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